The annual report from Maine’s child welfare ombudsman, formally submitted this week, highlights persistent challenges – made worse by the pandemic – facing caseworkers whose job it is to protect the state’s vulnerable youth.

Many of the findings contained in Christine Alberi’s 11-page report were conveyed to lawmakers in November, including the finding that half of the cases her office reviewed last year had “substantial issues” where the failure to follow best practices or policies either endangered a child or impacted parental rights.

Alberi said Wednesday that it’s the highest rate in recent years, but the problems are not new.

“We have been tracking the same practice issues detailed in the reports for many years, and there has not been evidence of significant statewide improvement in those practice issues yet,” she said in an email. “However, I am hopeful that with the current focus on child welfare and acknowledgement of longstanding issues, and with the start of implementation of safety science in Maine, we will start to see slow, but steady improvement in the outcomes of cases.”

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services issued its own report and statement in response to the ombudsman report, noting that the watchdog reviewed only a fraction of the nearly 12,000 cases the Office of Child and Family Services handled in the last fiscal year. State officials also highlighted efforts to increase staff pay, enhance training and secure funding for more than 70 new staff positions in an effort to ease caseloads.

The number of foster families caring for Maine children has increased by nearly 30 percent since 2019.

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DHHS noted in its response that it has used the ombudsman findings to address concerns by individual families and to inform possible systemic changes. However, it also said a source of disagreement between the agency and the ombudsman has been whether to bring children into state care and how long they should remain there.

“While OCFS recognizes the perception that children are safer when removed, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that removing a child from their home has the potential to inflict harm or trauma,” the DHHS report says. “In addition, there is little research to support the belief that, in general, children who enter state custody are safer than they would be if they had remained in the home with efforts undertaken to address safety concerns.”

Tension between the ombudsman office and DHHS boiled over in July, when two members of the ombudsman board of directors resigned out of frustration that systemic reforms had not been implemented following the high-profile deaths of Kendall Chick in 2017 and Marissa Kennedy in 2018.

Alberi has been careful to not lay blame for the lack of progress at the feet of front-line staff.

“There are many front-line staff that are doing excellent work every day, and often are hampered by forces outside their control,” she said. “Also, the impact of COVID on any reform efforts should not be underestimated. COVID stresses make everything harder, including learning new ways of thinking and practicing for dedicated child welfare professionals.”

The ombudsman’s report comes as lawmakers are signaling an openness to enacting reforms to better protect children after four children died within a month of each other last summer. Several bills have been filed for the upcoming session and the administration is working on its own set of recommendations.

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As the Senate accepted the report Wednesday, Sen. Bill Diamond told his colleagues that it shows both the good work being done by caseworkers and the challenges that persist. The ombudsman’s analysis should help guide lawmakers considering reforms, he said.

“The things that need a lot of work are very, very important and need to be addressed as soon as possible,” Diamond said on the Senate floor. “This report will probably be one of the most helpful reports on this issue because of the independent nature of her organization.”

DEATHS RENEW SCRUTINY

The state’s child protective services came under the microscope again last summer after the four child deaths. Murder or manslaughter charges have been filed in three of those cases. In at least one, the death of 3-year-old Maddox Williams in Stockton Springs, the family had prior contact with child protective services, court documents revealed.

The state brought in Casey Family Programs to help investigate three of the four deaths in 2021. But lawmakers were disappointed with the results of a report issued in October because it did not delve into details of each case.

Alberi said she had reviewed three of those deaths and planned to review the fourth. However, the findings were not included in the annual report. She declined to provide those findings to the Press Herald on Wednesday, citing ongoing criminal investigations, but said she has discussed her conclusions with DHHS.

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“I am working on how to communicate my conclusions,” Alberi said, noting the need to respect confidentiality. “There is no clear path within the confidentiality statute for me to discuss the cases publicly, although I have discussed them extensively with the department.”

Alberi’s office investigates cases based on complaints. Of the 42 where substantial issues were found, 22 involved initial investigations into whether a child should be removed from a home and 14 involved reunifications, while six have varying issues.

One case reviewed last year involved a family that the state and its alternative response program had consistently been involved with for a year and a half. The ombudsman found that the child had made more than one disclosure about physical violence, including strangulation, by an adult in the home.

“Finally, the child was strangled by the adult again and had to be transported to the hospital and the adult was arrested,” The report states. “The perpetrator had held the child off the ground with feet off the floor. It was later learned that the child had been exposed to repeated domestic violence in the home.”

Alberi noted in her report that the ongoing stress of the pandemic on both caseworkers and families played a role, but also said “learning and reform will be an ongoing process and take time.”

LISTENING TO STAFF

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She also recommended that DHHS do a better job listening to front-line staff and involve them in reforms; implement “Safety Science” in child welfare, which relies on evidence-based approaches; devote more attention to prevention; and training staff and supervisors using national best practices.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a written statement that both reports would be used to inform future decisions and policy recommendations.

“Together, these reports provide valuable insights into Maine’s child welfare system and further opportunities to improve the health and safety of Maine children,” she said. “We especially thank the ombudsman for acknowledging the pressures Maine families and our front-line staff have faced over the last year, particularly those resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has placed unprecedented stress on our systems and supports.”

Lawmakers have signaled a willingness to tackle reforms this session, including bills that would strengthen the ombudsman’s office and provide ongoing monitoring of child protective services by the Government Oversight Committee.

Also, Democratic Reps. Michael Brennan, of Portland, and Health and Human Services Committee Co-Chair Michele Meyer, of Eliot, have presented the Mills administration with a five-point plan to enhance child safety by tackling substance use and poverty.

A spokesperson for Mills said the administration is considering its own slate of reforms, but it has not released any details.

Meanwhile, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability is still investigating the child deaths last summer and is expected to issue the first part of its report by Jan. 15. That could inform other recommendations.


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